The Torah Imagines A Greenbelt


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:48 p.m.
Torah: Num. 30:2-36:13
Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4; 4:1-2
Havdalah: 8:47 p.m.

Matot-Massei provides an architectural blueprint for the ideal city. After the Jewish people settle in Canaan, the Torah commands the people to build cities for the Levites (priests). The Torah does not envision a concrete jungle, but cities surrounded by greenery. “And you shall give the Levites open spaces (migrash) around the cites … and their open spaces shall be for their cattle, their property, and for all their needs [Numbers 35:2-3].”

Why do we need open space around cities? The Talmud [Aruchin 33b] offers an environmental benefit of the migrash. The outer area is zoned for agriculture. Residents may plant trees in the migrash but may not use the area for construction; it is to remain an open land for parks. There is an environmental benefit to trees and grass; greenery counteracts pollution. Trees provide much oxygen that sustains an urban life.

Rashi offers a more spiritual explanation. The open space had to remain undeveloped for aesthetic reasons, to beautify one’s surroundings [Rashi 35:2]. It is a space where one goes to exalt in the beauty of God’s creations, of the trees, the flowers and the gardens. The beauty is uplifting. Beyond being good for the environment, it’s actually good for the soul.

In fact, our Torah seems to have a preference for open spaces, classifying them as more spiritually elevating than a city. Consider some of the first cities constructed in Genesis. Nimrod, Noah’s grandson, is responsible for building the cities of Bavel, Erech, Akkad, and Kalnay, each ultimately became corrupt. The Tower of Bavel (Babel) became a paradigm of depraved city life.

God commanded the people to build cities for the Levites, but to combat the potential urban immorality they were commanded to build the migrash, as well.

We no longer observe the law of migrash today. After the destruction of the Temple, we were exiled from our land, without sovereignty. In modern Israel, regaining authority over the land, the Rabbinic leadership gave thought to how to observe the Torah’s other agricultural laws, such as shmitta (the seventh Sabbatical year), and yovel (Jubilee, the seventh cycle of the Sabbatical year). However, the law of migrash was never reintroduced.

And yet, surprisingly, the majority of the rabbis involved in the Talmud’s discussion of the migrash concluded that this law applies to all Jewish towns in Israel, not just the Levite cities. The laws of migrash were extended to all of the Jewish people! Maimonides accepts this opinion as law [Hilkhot Shmittah, Yovel 13:5); that it is ideal for all cities to be surrounded by gardens, by open spaces.

So I wonder, is there anything we can derive from the mitzvah of migrash, the mitzvah of open spaces, even if today we cannot literally designate large, open, undeveloped areas surrounding our communities? Besides obvious environmental benefits, why are open spaces necessary?

The Torah describes the migrash as a place that would be “lchol chayatam” for all the living needs of the Levites. Sforno, a biblical commentator, interprets lchol chayatam to include activities such as cultivating beehives and dovecotes. I imagine people, taking a break from a long hard day’s work in the city, going out to the migrash, to the field, to commune with Nature, where they can engage in an activity that is relaxing and enjoyable, rejuvenating the spirit.

Perhaps then, the mitzvah of migrash can be seen as a metaphor for allowing unpopulated, quiet space in all the noise, allowing us to rejuvenate. In the hustle and bustle of our world, the migrash inspires us to wander about the unknowable essence of God, contemplating all that the world has to offer. It suggests that we give ourselves some space to reflect, whether we have filled our daily lives with all we had hoped for.

The migrash quite literally provides necessary oxygen, allowing us space to catch our breath, releasing the clutter that fills our lives. The serenity and beauty that it conveys inspires a more healthful outlook, imploring that we slow down, and pay attention to our surroundings.

The Torah is telling us that we must build, create and produce. But as we do so, we must remember to pause, to create an empty and quiet space, like the migrash, where we can contemplate our lives and rejuvenate our spirit. 

Rabba Sara Hurwitz is the dean and co-founder of Yeshivat Maharat and Rabba at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale — The Bayit.